Apocalyptic Preaching

We live in the belly of a wounded beast. We conduct our business in the tattered market stalls of Babylon.

Can we see it for what it is? You, preacher, are called to give apocalyptic witness, to strip away the veil and bring hidden things to light.

Sound scary? Worried you’ll become a lunatic on the fringe?

My friends, apocalyptic preaching is at the heart of Christian witness. Don’t believe me? Just ask Jesus, or Paul.

“Apocalyptic” means “revelatory.” I propose that the biblical apocalypses, Daniel and Revelation, model for us a style of “apocalyptic preaching.”

Before going further, I’ll say what apocalyptic preaching is not:

  • Not a flight from reality.
  • Not fear-mongering, labeling, or proclaiming “the end is near.”
  • Not deliberate obfuscation.

But what is it? And how do we do it?

Like the biblical apocalypses, apocalyptic preaching combines elements of critique, exhortation, and consolation.1

As critique, apocalyptic preaching is witness that consciously positions itself in relation to contemporary discourses of power. To preach apocalyptically is to make an epistemological stance — a claim about truth — that challenges the logic of empire that continues to ensnare us, even as it lurches and totters.

As long as we let the world, instead of the gospel, narrate who we are, we are complicit in our slavery to empire. As exhortation, apocalyptic preaching challenges its hearers to reject imperial mythologies and walk free in the light of truth.

To engage the powers and shatter the myths that uphold them, the apocalyptic preacher must do some hard diagnostic homework: What’s going on in this community? In what are we deceived? How are we invested in the imperial project, and what does that cost us?

In the current global economic crisis, that diagnostic work is all the more urgent. As our communities fight despair, where do we locate the source of our hope?

From here, the task of apocalyptic preaching is to make the invisible visible. Apocalyptic preachers reveal the invisible workings of empire and the invisible forms of our complicity. For the empire, the less aware we are of the logic that upholds it, the better. Revelation is the only answer.

Most importantly, apocalyptic preaching reveals the invisible workings of God, who is our only viable source of hope. Identifying the hidden source and shape of our hope is fundamental to the work of consolation.

Apocalyptic preaching also reveals the true nature of visible things, using symbols to characterize what it reveals. What looks harmless, benevolent, and shiny, is revealed as deadly and monstrous. What looks powerful is revealed in its fragility. What looks weak is revealed in its true strength.

Apocalyptic preaching is firmly anchored in the biblical text. The apocalyptic preacher studies the text to discern its theological grammar, how its symbols work, how the text positions itself in relation to the world around it, and how it moves the audience from one posture and logic to another. The apocalyptic sermon will recreate the movements of the text and bring the congregation into its symbolic world.

To understand how the symbols of the text work, the preacher does not isolate them but pays careful attention to their position and function within the network of symbols used in the passage, in the biblical book as a whole, and elsewhere in the scriptures. The apocalyptic preacher uses this network of symbols to interpret contemporary reality, not first by exposition, but by carefully bringing them to life. The preacher draws the hearer into this symbolic world and subtly links biblical images and idiom with contemporary ones. The biblical idiom and images provide the dominant tone.

Like the apocalypses, apocalyptic preaching uses its symbols in polyvalent fashion and does not over-determine their referents. Ancient apocalyptic writers didn’t always make it clear who or what their symbols “stood for.” Did they want to confuse us? No, but they understood that symbols have a unique power.

I do not deny the importance of exposition and expository preaching. These are necessary and have their own power. But symbols and myth function differently from explanation and analysis. They shape the imagination and redefine what is possible and real, inviting us to reapply a single paradigm in multiple contexts.

In the ancient world, apocalyptic visionaries often wrote pseudonymously, attributing their revelatory visions to a great figure from the past. Does this practice give us permission to hide behind the gospel? Absolutely not.

The authors of apocalypses were not hiding but claiming their place in a tradition. They remind us the discourse that has the power to dismantle every empire and reveal God in our midst doesn’t originate with you or me. We don’t speak on our own authority or for our own glory. We claim the authority of the gospel, and we preach the gospel from within a tradition. John, the seer, was the one apocalyptic writer who put his own name on his book. But the truth of his message and the shape of his witness came directly from the slaughtered lamb.

Apocalyptic preaching does not stand alone: it is one modality of preaching, just as “apocalypse” is one of many literary genres in the Bible. We neglect it at our peril.

Finally, apocalyptic preaching isn’t just preaching on apocalyptic texts. The authors of the apocalypses “preached” apocalyptically on a host of biblical texts, drawing on earlier scriptures for much of their imagery, language, and concepts. I challenge you to do the same.2

1See the fine essay posted on this website by Greg Carey, entitled “Preaching Apocalyptic Texts” 11.02.08.
2My thanks to Walter Brueggemann, Chuck Campbell, Greg Carey, and Denise Thorpe, whose comments on earlier drafts made this a stronger essay.